Typically, a swamp is full of water that is either stagnant or moving very slowly. The water is rather shallow, with a changing plenitude of flora and fauna affected by many factors such as seasonal changes in water levels, materials flowing into the swamp, the amount of light, and the presence of occasional large mammals. Inside the swamp is an entire world, largely dependent on external factors that determine much of what goes on in it. Some of the creatures inside the swamp become extinct, while others develop defense mechanisms or rather a mechanism that enables them to continue living in spite of the toxic, harmful materials flowing in. Others, either by chance or pure luck, become amphibians – creatures who are able to leave the swamp but cannot be disconnected from it.
This metaphor is very helpful in describing the state of Arabs in Israel. I shall base this discussion on their collective definition as “a stateless minority.” Such a definition is absent from the academic and political discourse referring to Palestinian Arabs inside Israel, although in my opinion it constitutes an important key for discussing the promotion of their political and social status as an indigenous minority and as citizens of the ethno-national State of Israel.
It is well known that Palestinians have experienced ongoing cycles of occupation. It is actually difficult to state that this people have ever felt any sense of independence and freedom from a ruling occupier. This fact is essential to the story of the swamp. Throughout long periods of time, Palestinians were not free of external rule that dictated their way of life and limited their movement. The transition from Ottoman rule to the British Mandate and then Israeli occupation is considered a “fresh memory of occupation” inherited by Palestinian grandchildren from their grandparents.
The period of the British Mandate was an outstanding temporal point of reference in Palestinian history, since the possibility of being an independent nation among nations was sensed for the first time — life as an ethno-national majority in its homeland and its sovereign state. The numerous committees sent to Palestine by the British Government and the United Nations to examine the Jewish-Arab problem stimulated a lively internal national discourse among Palestinians. They had a respectable national leadership whose decisions they supported as they negotiated the partitioning of the homeland. However, the depth of their disappointment was equal only to the height of their expectations. Palestinians experienced the Nakba, their dream of independence was shattered, and each found their swamp-like fate - becoming extinct, surviving in the swamp, or leaving it.
For Arabs in Israel, the Nakba had a profound and particularly far-reaching echo. They not only lost their position as a majority and became a minority; not only lost their lands, towns, and villages; not only lost their national leadership but, most importantly, they lost contact with the remainder of their own people, their brothers and relatives, and were gathered inside the new state under the control of a harsh military rule that governed their movement and livelihood. Their identity was now defined anew as “Arab citizens of the State of Israel.” This is how the story begins, how the Arabs in Israel became a national minority inside a state that grants it citizenship without addressing its national identity. To what group does such a member of this minority belong? With whom will they identify when their state fights their people?
“A stateless national minority” is one that is included in the state but does not sense any identification with it. This absence of identity and national consciousness differs from those of the majority within the same state. The existence of a stateless national collective reflects the inability of the sovereign state to fulfill the minority’s civilian and national needs. It then seeks an alternative, independent political structure that reflects its own national expectations and ambitions, culture, and particular characteristics.
The Arabs in Israel are part of the Palestinian people. They are a cultural group with a common history attached to a territory with defined borders (according to various partition maps offered during the British rule, Mandatory Palestine had defined borders). It aspires to control its own political fate. Unlike the rest of the Palestinians who struggled for sovereign territorial national independence, the Palestinians inside Israel wished to remain under its patronage and demanded cultural autonomy with equal civil rights. Even when their state fought their fellow people, they were motivated by realistic considerations of survival and security. They demanded cultural autonomy for themselves and an independent sovereign state for the rest of the Palestinians outside of Israel who were engaged in an unarmed struggle. Such a reality is problematic and places Palestinians citizens of Israel inside the category defined as a “stateless minority.”
The nature of independence that stateless collectives demand inside a nation-state is not uniform. It could be political autonomy, as in the case of the North American indigenous peoples; detachment from the nation-state of the majority and the constitution of a sovereign state, as in Scotland, the Basque country, and Catalonia; or it could even take the shape of the 26 Swiss cantons making up Switzerland’s confederacy, wherein every canton has its own constitution, parliament, government, and courts, subject to a central government.
Like that of any stateless minority, the situation of the Arabs in Israel is based on the degree to which they see the state and its apparatuses as an obstacle to their own socioeconomic development. A sense of exploitation and persecution is the main condition that drives national movements and stateless national collectives to dissent against the state and struggle for independence or demand autonomy.
Generally speaking, stateless minorities are moved by two opposing forces. The first is their own national movement (including civil society) and the second is the ruling majority state and the degree of democratic flexibility it allows its minority.
The greater the democratic flexibility and equality, the lesser the opposite influence of the minority’s national movement, as its power to motivate that minority against the majority’s state rule is weakened. In other words, as the minority’s socioeconomic position improves, it is granted more rights equal to those enjoyed by the majority, and its own national struggle and prominence of national identity weakens. This is especially noticeable when the fate of such a minority depends upon the majority, and it lacks the power to significantly endanger the majority’s security, economy, and culture. All this corresponds to the reality experienced by Arabs inside Israel.
Amphibians in the Swamp
Palestinians have already spent seven and a half decades inside the State of Israel. This long time has sufficed to turn them into “identity hybrids,” unlike Jews or other Palestinians. They constitute a unique minority characterized by unique identity features taken on from the culture of the majority without having assimilated, as the cultural and national clash has not made such assimilation possible. By definition, the Israeli majority blocks entry to any non-Jew, based on religious identity but also on cultural and social orientalism. The Arab minority, too, annexed by the Jewish state, has been characteristically closed, aspiring to defend its own tradition from the spirit of Westernization and openness characteristic of Jewish society. As the Arab minority is dependent upon the Jewish majority, however, it has adopted many new identity features that enable it to appear similar to the majority while, in comparison, there have been very few identity changes among the Jewish majority.
In addition to global transformations dictated by our times, Arab sociocultural structure has been greatly affected by the way of living dictated to them inside the State of Israel. Most of them lost everything they had and were forced to begin anew in all areas: identity, society, culture, economy, and others. The upper bourgeoisie left Palestine, while the lower- and middle-class bourgeoisie as well as farmers made up the majority of Palestinians that remained in Israel. Having lost their lands and property, these Palestinians were forced to find new livelihoods. Women had to support their families economically and went to work outside the home as well. Fertility rate sank, the marriage age rose, as did the number of people seeking higher education, living arrangements changed, and the culture and even the spoken language began to be reshaped.
These changes are still not easy for Arabs in Israel. Since the founding of the state, they have been moving slowly and heavily at the bottom of the index scale while trying to reduce the gaps that only grow wider visa-vis Jewish society. Such gaps appear in welfare and social development and depend on mean income and equity capital, employment, education, housing, health, culture and recreational institutions, crime rates, etc. This struggle is taking place while they dwell in residential areas almost totally separate from the Jews. Even in the mixed cities, the Arabs usually live in separate neighborhoods and buildings. This reality turns them not only into identity hybrids but into amphibians of sorts who leave their own populated areas (the swamp) in the morning in order to work, trade, and study and, at the end of the day, go back into the swamp where they conduct their own socio-cultural lives.
State Must Change Hands-Off Policy
The “Arabic” swamp constitutes a comfort zone for Israeli rule because of that very separation. This area enables the ruler to determine the measure and timing of its reaction to everything that takes place inside. Improper administration on the local governing level means bad schooling, weak infrastructures, crowded dwellings without any modern planning, lack of master plans and structures for school, culture, health, and community. The lack of planning for the early ages, adolescents, and the elderly; poor public transportation; growing crime, the purchase of illegal weapons, and criminal organizations taking over debt management are only some of the burning problems of the “Arab swamp” that point to its purposeful desertion by the authorities. The state does not wish to intervene in order to develop and promote the lives of Arabs within it.
Thus, it is primarily the responsibility of the ruling apparatuses of the State of Israel to bring about change and improve the living conditions of the local minority, for this minority is part and parcel of the state’s citizenry and because ever since the state was founded the Arab minority has expressed its wish to live here peacefully. A mutual and respectful partnership should be the basis for any plan made for Arab society by the state itself. Such partnership should include the effective use of the capabilities and human capital present in Israel’s Arab society.
Recognition of the Arabs’ status as an indigenous national minority with national identity needs is an essential part of the mutual and respectful partnership described above. The state must reach a proper agreement with representatives of the Arab community for both material and emotional reparations for the Nakba. Such an agreement would naturally be made under international patronage and would enable the Arabs in Israel to express their own ethno-national identity and bear their own national and cultural symbols without fear or threat in recognition of the fact that these external manifestations of identity are as vital and basic a need as food, water, and security.
Action by Arab Society
Finally, as for the definition of the Arabs inside Israel as a national minority living in a state that is not their own, this calls for intervention by Arab society itself with all its internal institutions, including NGOs, associations, and political parties. They are responsible for defending Arab society vis-à-vis the Israeli rule and the international community, but their main mission is to raise a qualitative group of young, educated leaders willing to work together and be responsible for leading and generating change. Such a group would be motivated by a purely social responsibility and must convince voters to reject clannishness and elect them in order to manage the institutions of local rule. Local rule, then, is the key through which the young leaders could generate change and offer proper, equal, and just leadership based on partnership with state rule and working to make their own society flourish. Such a vision could turn the swamp into a peaceful, beneficial lake. It could ensure the recognition of Arabs as an indigenous national minority that does not strive for national independence but for respectful cultural independence and egalitarian citizenship.